Remembering rock stars and a folk singer

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 04:51 PM

“Nearly fifty years later, people still remember exactly where they were the night The Beatles stepped onto Ed Sullivan’s stage,” the “Official Ed Sullivan Site” notes with laconic immodesty.

The website sketches the scene:

“On February 9th, 1964, The Beatles, with their Edwardian suits and mop top haircuts, made their first American television appearance—LIVE—on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“A record setting 73 million people tuned in that evening making it one of the seminal moments in television history.”

The 50th anniversary of that landmark show is one week away. I confess it’s fascinating that there is, more than 40 years after the last Ed Sullivan show aired, an official Ed Sullivan website. But I also must confess that I cannot count myself among those who remember exactly where they were that night.

I’m not even sure I watched it. It’s likely I did – my parents were faithfully tuned to CBS at 8 p.m. every Sunday. I do vaguely remember them commenting on the fact that at least that long hair on the four young men who had made “Beatlemania” the pop culture explosion of the moment was clean. But that may have been after the fact.

I was a high school geek. I am pretty sure that I had to lean over and ask a seatmate on a bus returning from an out-of-town basketball game that winter who exactly the Beatles were. (As further evidence of my geekiness, while it was the team bus, I wasn’t playing basketball. I was writing stories and taking pictures for the local newspaper.)

By the time I’d headed off to college two and a half years later, The Beatles were, however, very much the soundtrack of my life.  For no particular reason, one of my recurring aural memories was listening to the then-new “Hey Jude” blaring from the speakers of the late-night eatery the dining hall had recently opened.

There is no question the Beatles, as a pair of stories by my colleague Cliff Bellamy noted in Friday’s paper, launched countless musical dreams and transformed the course of American popular music.

It is a poignant coincidence that, another musician, part of a movement that likewise was transformative, passed away last week. Pete Seeger was 94 when he died Monday. 

Seeger, an influential voice of the folk revival of the 1950s, “spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change,” Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times last week.

“Mr. Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10, from college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama,” Pareles wrote.

“For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.”

It was those characteristics that brought Seeger to Duke University in April 1968 to entertain and affirm the cause of hundreds of students camped on the Chapel Quad in the Vigil that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

For what it’s worth, I do remember where I was then – standing at the edge of the quad, a student journalist simultaneously observing and inspired by the crowd and Seeger’s music.

Within a span of a few days, a 50th anniversary and a death were reminders of the timeless intersection of music, life and politics.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or